To get a sense of how voters are responding to the competing policy proposals of the Democratic White House and the Republican House leadership, look no further than the pivotal Senate races developing in Nevada and Virginia. The contests are taking place in two of the most hotly contested presidential battlegrounds, and both feature candidates whose views largely mirror that of their party's leadership.
Last week, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., announced she will be running for the Senate, making Nevada's the only Senate race so far where two current members of the House are poised to square off against each other for a promotion. If she wins the Democratic nomination, she'll face Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., whose views have migrated considerably to the right since he began considering a Senate campaign: He voted against the budget compromises that kept the government open, and has taken a much harder line on immigration lately.
As they both mount their campaigns, their service in the House guarantees that they will have to cast votes on controversial issues. There won't be any running and hiding for these two candidates.
On paper, Berkley gives Democrats a representative with a moderate voting record who can raise big bucks in Las Vegas. In reality, her votes in support of health care reform and the stimulus will loom far larger than her overall record. And given the importance of Nevada in both the presidential race and the Senate Democrats' attempts to hold on to their slim majority, any decent candidate would have been able to raise national money. Meanwhile, the party missed out on an opportunity to energize the state's pivotal Latino vote—as important for Obama as it is for the Democratic nominee.
It's notable that Democratic recruiters preferred Berkley over several young up-and-coming statewide officials, particularly Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is Hispanic. Nevada features one of the Democrats' deepest benches of political talent, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee favored a longtime congresswoman who, as Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston put it, has a "flamboyant Vegascentric personality." At a time when Washington is still deeply unpopular and the state is suffering through a deep recession, the choice of a congressional veteran over a Washington outsider is a puzzling one. And Democratic officials didn't just recruit her: She received a coveted early DSCC endorsement, which hasn't been conferred to many other contenders.
That said, Republican leaders have a much more bullish view about Heller, their favored choice for the seat, than his record seems to justify. Heller is liked and respected among the Republican establishment, but he has made some questionable decisions since entering the race. Positioning himself to the right on immigration and vocally supporting the House Republicans' budget plan to dramatically alter Medicare—even though there is no sign of a primary challenge from the right—is a questionable strategy in a Democratic-trending battleground like Nevada. His shift on immigration is particularly questionable, given that he'll need to make up ground with Hispanic voters, who deserted last year's Republican nominee, Sharron Angle, en masse.
Nevada is the most winnable Republican-held seat for Senate Democrats, but the DSCC's questionable decision to rally round Berkley this early—especially when she faces self-funded primary challenger Byron Georgiou—could come back to bite them.
The dynamic is remarkably similar in Virginia. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine will likely be facing former Sen. George Allen, presenting commonwealth voters with a choice between two candidates about as closely tied to their parties' establishments as you can get. In past elections, being connected to a Democratic president would be a disadvantage for a Senate nominee in Virginia, but the state's diversifying demographics and growth around the Washington suburbs have made it a major battleground.
Even so, Kaine took pains not to mention his close work and friendship with Obama, spending more time focusing on his Richmond City Council record over his DNC service during his introductory video. There was no mention of health care reform, which Kaine aggressively defended in his day job.
Allen, meanwhile, is as partisan as Republicans come. Before losing his 2006 Senate race, he was widely considered a potential 2008 presidential candidate. So far, he's running a similarly conservative campaign, hoping the GOP-friendly Virginia electorate of 2009 and 2010 predominates over the one that backed Obama in 2008.
Virginia is one of the few states where the Senate campaign could make a crucial difference in helping the president's chances—and not the other way around. And Obama might be better served if he keeps his profile lower than his Virginia ticketmate's. To many outside-the-Beltway Virginians who aren't glued to the cable news networks, Kaine is remembered as a pragmatic governor who presided over good economic times, and less as the partisan DNC chief. Kaine has to decide whether he wants to fully embrace Obama on the trail, or keep a little distance.
Allen's challenge is to get past the gaffes that dogged him in his last campaign. If he can't appeal to the Washington suburbanites he struggled so badly to win in 2006, it won't be a good sign for the Republican presidential nominee, either.
White House strategists are placing significant emphasis on winning Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado as a bulwark to make up for ground lost in the Rust Belt and Florida. Without winning at least two of those three states, it's difficult to see a path to victory for Obama in 2012. That's putting a lot of pressure on Kaine and Berkley, who have the blessing of the Democratic leadership but also carry the burden of its high expectations.